Tuesday, February 2, 2016

City Museums – Museums About the City

Heritage Museums and Gardens, Sandwich MA
I am drawn to city museums. I like a city museum when I travel. The City of Amsterdam Museum helped me get oriented, explore the city, and dive deeper into the city and its patterns. I like a city museum for where I live. The Mill City Museum located where St Anthony Falls, the Stone Arch Bridge, and mill ruins meet, the museum is about this place, where and how I spend my days. Still I wish there were more city museums to invigorate cities, connect citizens, welcome visitors, and for me to visit.

Michael Spock’s characterization of children’s museums as being for someone makes me wonder why more museums don’t also see themselves as being for (and about) someone: for and about us, residents and citizens of this city. When I read, Happiness, Design, and the Future of Museums, on the Center for the Future of Museums blog a few months back, I felt my hope for more city museums was closer to being realized.

Recently, when staff I was meeting with began describing how they saw their museum’s future, I couldn’t help but envision a city museum for them. Their reimagined museum is for children, youth and families, residents and tourists. It intends to put down roots in its current location, a transitioning neighborhood at the edge of two very different but old neighborhoods; one is home to immigrant families new to the region and the other is home to established and more prosperous families. The views out the museum windows frame the harbor and bridges in one direction and hills in the other. These views are livelier and more direct connections to the beauty, industry, history, culture, sports, and place of the city than the chosen list of focus areas: STEM, arts, literacy, and history. They were describing a city museum.

Collaborating for the Future
Every city has its challenges. Competing demands on limited resources, population changes, employment shifts, environmental pressures, and diverse perspectives change a city or town. However, a city or community with engaged citizenry and strong connections, can weather these challenges.

Communities also have libraries, museums, cultural organizations, artists, activists, designers, enthusiasts, and advocates with knowledge of, love for, and aspirations on behalf of their community. When museums see themselves as serving a community, they can be part of transforming a city into a better, possible version of itself by collaborating with cultural, civic, and learning partners.

City museums know that people make cities. Certainly, different versions of the city exist for its many inhabitants. Yet, the city is also a strong, shared context for people of diverse backgrounds and experiences and container for their lives. Inspired to find ways for community members to express how they see themselves in the city and in the museum, city museums focus on connecting people, not only on collecting objects. They facilitate people finding personal connections, sharing stories, revealing hidden heritage, and interpreting place. For city museums audience, citizens, participants, and visitors are the same.

Cities have the capability of providing something for everybody, only because, and only when, they are created by everybody.
Jane Jacobs, The Death and Life of Great American Cities (1961)

Museum in the City, City in the Museum
A city museum is not a replication or imitation of parts of the city, a display of its economic activities, or a showcase of cherished landmarks. Rather it is an interpretation, investigation, or even an unwrapping, of the city that reveals its personality and promise through the eyes, experiences, lives, hopes, and connections of its citizens and visitors.

A city museum is as much about the present and the future as it is about the past; as much about the change it hopes to realize as the changes that have occurred over the decades. A city museum is where traditional heritage and contemporary heritage meet and mix. It is where the community meets and mourns a tragedy and gathers to celebrate a victory.

An occasional exhibit or program is inadequate in distilling and defining the city and engaging members of the community in meaningful ways. But exhibits, projects, programs, installations, events, social media, and partnerships can be ways to open the museum to the city and its people. With partnerships, participation, and creativity from across the community, these exhibits, events, programs, and installations may be created in schools, community centers, and on the street and offer a decidedly original turn.

The city museum is inescapably local and decidedly place-based. If an exhibit is about bridges, it’s about that bridge seen through the window–the High Bridge, the Aerial Lift Bridge, the Brooklyn Bridge. If an exhibit is about water, it’s about this river or lake, its currents, its flooding, its water quality. Neighborhoods organize for the local bird and bug counts. The artists and makers that are showcased are from many neighborhoods. The weather exhibit is about the lake effect snow the city knows well or why it’s cooler by the lake.

The city museum has all the challenges of being inclusive, diverse, and accessible that every museum does–and more. It issues louder invitations to participate and it challenges itself to listen to, amplify, and learn from more and new voices. This is a museum that organizes itself to be guided by the creativity and ingenuity within the community. This museum’s everydayness makes it extraordinary.

Taking on the City
Some museums are taking on the city the way Jane Jacobs took on the city in her book, The Death and Life of Great American Cities They shift their visions; incorporate a strong contemporary perspective into an historic focus; open their doors, and explore contemporary heritage. The Museum of Vancouver has issued a bold vision, “To inspire a socially connected, civically engaged city.” When the Historical Museum Rotterdam became Museum Rotterdam, its one-word name change reflected a major shift in focus following extensive and deliberate effort.

The Museum of Art and History has been working thoughtfully, actively, and nimbly with its Santa Cruz community on creating opportunities for citizens to bond and bridge and developing a theory of change for their vision. The Museum of the City presents a very different model, a virtual model, for a city museum. Several other city museums are visited in a 2013 issue of Journal of Museum Education on Urban Design and Learning. A related perspective is explored in Cities, Museums, and Soft Power, by Gail Lord and Ngaire Blankenburg.

These are some of the city museums finding ways to be of greater use to their city contributing to its resilience, sustainability, and vitality. One city museum may be combining scholarship, stewardship, and sustainability; another may become part of the city infrastructure for wellbeing. As their journeys reveal, museums can re-imagine themselves without abandoning their core. In identifying and strengthening connections to their cities, they shift slightly, gradually, and strategically. Such shifts are not limited to history museums. A children’s museum, a science center, an art museum, or natural history museum can be a museum of, about, for, and with the city.

Perhaps these stories of change and possibility will inspire more museums in being deliberate about opening up to the city, letting it in, both reflecting it and shaping it.

Related Resources
City Museums and Urban Learning, Journal of Museum Education. Vol. 38, N.: March 2009

Related Museum Notes Posts


  1. Thanks for mentioning our work in Santa Cruz, Jeanne.

    In doing this work, it has made me think a lot about how individual professionals advance their careers. If you want to be of/by/for a city, it's important that staff aren't just passing through that city. Staff don't have to be locals born and raised, but they should have a specific love for and commitment to the city where they work. I find this is antithetical to the way many people pursue museum careers--many people feel that their only choice is to move every few years. This weakens institutions, not just because of turnover, but because of local commitment. We've ended up shifting our hiring practices to prioritize this local commitment as a key part of what we seek.

  2. Nina, you have made an excellent point in several respects. Being a city museum requires a wholehearted commitment to the city on the part of staff (and, I would add, trustees), whether they are transplants or born and raised there. Attachment, enthusiasm, curiosity, knowledge, and pride in the city need to be present and in abundance. Your point also underscores the importance of following a museum's important ideas "upstream." There are many and less obvious manifestations of a museum's core ideas that need to be understood and played out. Recruiting, hiring, and retaining staff support what a museum values and provide the expertise it wants to have. We think of that more readily when looking for a love of history or art or science and less about other interests. Thank you!

  3. Hi Jeanne. Great topic = I'm an urban designer who ended up working in a museum and BIG believer in how museums can learn from cities in creating themselves as places (place-making practice) and vice versa, how museums could contribute to urban policy. The Guggenheim City Lab probably my dream model. Here is a rough blog that I have since made into an article, love to share it when published - https://designingyen.wordpress.com/2015/08/09/museums-place-making-my-experience-manifesto/

  4. Yen you do bring an interesting perspective with your urban planning background. I agree that there's a lot museums can learn from cities and that cities can learn from museums. Both can be more deliberate and imaginative about being embedded in place. Thank you for sharing the blog you wrote on this topic. BTW I sometimes think that if I hadn't gone into museum work, I might have been an urban planner.

  5. Those interested in exploring city-museum connections, community engagement, urban design might be interested in checking out the Guggenheim Lab that Yen mentioned: http://www.bmwguggenheimlab.org. The Lab describes itself as "part urban think tank, part community center and pubic gathering space..." which makes it a hybrid very much like city museums.